Apprehending Apokatastasis: The Incoherence of Everlasting Perdition

I’m a bit surprised to find myself beginning a series of reflections on That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart. The book has already generated a copiosity of reviews from theolo­gians and internet cognoscenti. Eclectic Orthodoxy has hosted a goodly number of them. Surely there is not much more interesting to say. Nevertheless, I need to add my voice to the cacophony. In this series I intend to highlight specific arguments and lines of thought advanced by Hart that I find compelling, challenging, evocative. Sometimes we miss the trees for the forest.

Hart begins his reflections with the classic Christian doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo. The doctrine declares that the infinite and perfect God created the cosmos in absolute freedom, without need of anything outside himself. On this all orthodox Christians may agree. But Hart then draws our attention to an often overlooked feature of the divine act—namely, its telos and goal:

Perhaps the first theological insight I learned from Gregory of Nyssa is that the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not merely a cosmological or metaphysical claim, but also an eschatological claim about the world’s rela­tion to God, and for that reason a moral claim about the nature of God in himself. In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspec­tive of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness. Anything will­ingly done is done toward an end; and anything done toward an end is defined by that end. (p. 68)

The meaning of the cosmos is revealed in its consummation. The beginning is directed toward the eschaton, and the eschaton contains the beginning. There’s nothing particu­larly obscure about this observation. Every good story journeys to a fitting conclusion. Narrative threads and character arcs are brought to satisfying closure. Quests are fulfilled, lovers united, conflicts resolved, rewards and punishments meted out, truths revealed and false­hoods exposed, important questions answered—and if they are not, we see why this too was necessary. If the conclusion fails to provide the fulfillment the story demands, which our aesthetic enjoyment demands, then the story, as well as its telling, is called into question. A bad ending can ruin a tale. (Just ask an avid Game of Thrones fan what he or she thought about season 8.) The obverse is also true: a good ending can save a problema­tic story. We hope that our lives constitute a coherent narrative, that they are more than a series of plot­less happenings; we hope that somehow our ending will justify our beginning. If Macbeth is right, and life should prove to be nothing more than “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,” then it was never worth the telling. The end is where we start from.

The God of the Bible creates from the final future—the final future that is himself—in his timeless telling of the cosmos. “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). The infinite and ineffable divinity bespeaks himself in the reflective mode of finitude. All is theophany. All is divine self-presentation and icon. For this reason the eschaton constitutes the ultimate manifestation of the divine character. This is probably more me speaking than Hart, so let’s quote the metaphysical wizard himself (warning: super-long citation coming—sorry):

Here my particular concern is the general principle that the doctrine of creation constitutes an assertion regarding the eternal identity of God. The doctrine in itself is, after all, chiefly an affirmation of God’s absolute dispositive liberty in all his acts—the absence, that is, of any external restraint upon or necessity behind every action of his will. And, while one must avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s resolve to create as an arbitrary choice made after deliberation among options, one must still affirm that it is free, that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent on the world’s, and that the only “necessity” present in the divine act of creation is the impossibility of any hindrance being placed upon God’s expression of his own goodness in making the world. Yet, for just this reason, the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable. As the transcendent Good beyond all beings, God is also the transcendental end that makes every single action of any rational nature possible. Moreover, the end toward which he acts must be his own goodness; for he is himself the beginning and end of all things. This is not to deny that, in addition to the “primary causality” of God’s act of creation, there are innumerable forms of “secondary causality” operative within the created order; but none of these can exceed or escape the one end toward which the first cause directs all things. And this eternal teleology that ultimately governs every action in creation, viewed from the vantage of history, takes the form of a cosmic eschatology. Seen as an eternal act of God, creation’s term is the divine nature for which all things were made; seen from within the orientation of time, its term is the “final judgment” that brings all things to their true conclusion.

Moreover, no matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain. First, as God’s act of creation is free, constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance, all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And, second, precisely because God in himself is absolute—“absolved,”that is, of every pathos of the contingent, every “affect”of the sort that a finite substance has the power to visit upon another—his moral “venture” in creating is infinite. One way or another, after all, all causes are logically reducible to their first cause. This is no more than a logical truism. And it does not matter whether one construes the rela­tion between primary and secondary causality as one of total determinism or as one of utter indeterminacy, for in either case all “consequents” are—either as actualities or merely as possibilities—contin­gent upon their primordial “antecedent,” apart from which they could not exist. And, naturally, the rationale of a first cause—its “definition,” in the most etymologically exact meaning of that term—is the final cause that prompts it, the end toward which it acts. If, then, that first cause is an infinitely free act emerging from an infinite wisdom, all those consequents are intentionally entailed—again, either as actualities or as possibilities—within that first act; and so the final end to which that act tends is its whole moral truth. The traditional ontolog­ical definition of evil as a privatio boni—a privation of the good lacking any essence of its own—is not merely a logically necessary metaphysical axiom about the transcendental structure of being; it is also an assertion that, when we say “God is good,” we are speaking of him not only relative to his crea­tion, but (however apophati­cally) as he is in himself. All comes from God, and so evil cannot be a “thing” that comes from anywhere. Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted. For in every sense being is act, and God, in his simplicity and infinite freedom, is what he does. He could not be the creator of anything substantially evil without evil also being part of the definition of who he essentially is; for he alone is the wellspring of all that exists.

God goes forth in all beings and in all beings returns to himself, as even Aquinas (following a long Christian tradition) affirms; but God also does this not as an expression of his dialectical struggle with some recalcitrant exteri­ority—some external obstacle to be surmounted or some unrealized possibil­ity to be achieved—but rather as the manifestation of an inex­haustible power wholly possessed by the divine in peaceful liberty in eter­nity. God has no need of the world; he creates it not because he is dependent upon it, but because its dependency on him is a fitting expression of the bounty of his goodness. So all that the doctrine of creation adds to the basic metaphysical picture is the further assurance that in this divine outpouring there is no element of the “irrational”: nothing purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom. This, however, also means that within the story of creation, viewed from its final cause, there can be no resi­due of the pardonably tragic, no irrecuper­able or irreconcilable remainder left behind at the end of the tale; for, if there were, this irreconcilable excess would also be something God has directly caused, as an entailment freely assumed in his act of creating, and so as an expression of who he freely is. This is no more than the simple logic of the absolute. (pp. 69-72)

This is a crucial passage for our understanding of Hart’s universalism. Let’s try to unpack it.

1) The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo asserts the absolute liberty of the Creator in all of his acts. As the infinite plenitude of Being, God did not need to create the cosmos to fill some­thing that was lacking in his life (remember—no passive potency) and having created it he does not find that his happiness and bliss have been increased. Moreover, not only does God enjoy absolute freedom to create, or not create, the cosmos; but he also enjoys absolute freedom in what kind of cosmos to create. He is not subject to constraints outside himself.

Nothing remarkable so far. This is just the classical doctrine of divine aseity which Hart has so ably presented in The Experience of God.

2) God eternally wills himself as the Good, and his willing of the cosmos is encompassed within this eternal self-willing. The purpose, telos, goal, consummation, and end of the divine act of creation is the Good; or to put it in the language of Aristotle, God is the final cause of creation. The cosmos is created by Love for consummation in Love.

In the background we hear the voices of St Gregory of Nyssa and St Maximus the Confessor, as well as Dionysius the Areopagite and St Thomas Aquinas.

3) God does not create evil. Only goodness flows from God. For this reason the classical theologians of the Christian tradition have understood evil as a privation of being, a defect, lack, surd, nothingness. The presence of evil within God’s good creation urgently raises the question of theodicy. The question cannot be banished with a mere wave of a philosoph­ical wand. Evil will always be the greatest challenge to faith, both intellectually and existen­tially. It’s one thing to acknowledge, and suffer, evil’s presence in the temporal order; it’s quite another thing to assert its eschatological perdurance.

4) The eschaton, therefore, necessarily and definitively reveals the character and identity of the Creator. The conclusion of the story can neither surprise nor disappoint him, for the conclusion is willed in the initial act of creation. Hence the presence of evil in the eschaton is quite impossible. In Hart’s words: “He could not be the creator of anything substantially evil without evil also being part of the definition of who he essentially is.” Here is the cru­cial Hartian claim: if everlasting perdition belongs to the climax of the cosmic narrative, then it was so intended by God from the beginning. Every free act is teleologically directed and therefore defined by its final cause. The inference cannot be avoided. After all, nothing compelled God to create this particular universe with this particular eschaton, and the omnipo­tence–omniscience combo precludes divine failure. If hell was intended, then it is good and inheres in the Good; if hell is intended, then hell becomes God.

To summarize: in his goodness the triune God creates the cosmos for consummation in his infinite goodness. All comes from Love and returns to Love. The Creator is both material cause and final cause. The eschaton, therefore, is not simply the climax of a story. It is the final revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the fullness of their lordship and glory. In the words of the Apostle:

And, when all things have been subordinated to him, then will the Son himself also be subordinated to the one who has subordinated all things to him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:28)

God will be all in all. This is the eschatological promise. How then hell everlasting?

The above reasoning leads Hart to the conclu­sion that a pernicious incoherence lies deep within the theological tradition. For the past 1500 years the Church has asserted three claims:

  • God freely created the cosmos ex nihilo.
  • God is the Good and wills only the good.
  • God will condemn a portion of his rational creatures to everlasting torment.

Two of these propositions may be rationally held without contradiction, argues Hart, but not all three simultaneously. Yet the Church has attempted to hold the three together, thereby causing far-reaching mischief. If God wills hell, he cannot be genuinely good:

This is not a complicated issue, it seems to me: The eternal perdition—the eternal suffering—of any soul would be an abominable tragedy, and therefore a profound natural evil; this much is stated quite clearly by scripture, in asserting that God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). A natural evil, however, becomes a moral evil precisely to the degree that it is the positive intention, even if only conditionally, of a rational will. God could not, then, directly intend a soul’s ultimate destruction, or even intend that a soul bring about its own destruction, without positively willing the evil end as an evil end; such a result could not possibly be comprised within the ends purposed by a truly good will (in any sense of the word “good” intelligible to us). Yet, if both the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and that of eternal damnation are true, that very evil is indeed already comprised within the positive intentions and disposi­tions of God. No refuge is offered here by some specious distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills—between, that is, his universal will for creation apart from the fall and his particular will regarding each creature in consequence of the fall. Under the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent. (pp. 81-82)

David Bentley Hart is hardly the first person in the history of the Church to see the illogic in asserting both the infinite goodness of the Creator and eternal damnation. No one saw this more clearly than St Isaac of Nineveh in the seventh century. “It is not the way of the compassionate Maker,” he declared, “to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created” (Discourses II.39.6).

(Go to “The God Behind the Curtain”)

 

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41 Responses to Apprehending Apokatastasis: The Incoherence of Everlasting Perdition

  1. apoloniolatariii says:

    What about this thought experiment (not that I believe it. I’m just thinking out loud), which is similar to the sorites paradox.

    Suppose Billy is in day 1 rejecting God. He suffers because rejecting God entails a suffering. What if I ask: is it unjust or unreasonable for Billy to reject God tomorrow and suffer? The answer seems to be no. It’s just one day. And we know people who do that. So God can allow someone to suffer “tomorrow” or the day after.

    So it is possible that God can allow the person to reject Him the day after.

    So now Billy is in day 2. The question is: can God allow to him to reject Him the next day? The answer seems to be yes. Adding one more day doesn’t seem unjust. So whatever day you are in, adding one more day when you can reject Him isn’t unjust. (think: can God allow you to reject Him tomorrow? The answer is yes)

    The problem with this is that if you allow “+day-rejection of God” or +1, then you may have to conclude that Billy can reject Him day 1,2,3, 4, 5,… You can always add one more day.

    Now, hell could be that. Replace “day” with whatever kind of time (time is the measurement of change or succession of events) there is in the after life.

    So hell is possible because you can always add one more day. If it’s possible, then it’s not incoherent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • brian says:

      The argument is that it is incoherent as an end permitted by the God proclaimed by the gospel of Christ with all the metaphysical criteria and stipulations asserted by Hart and contemplated above by Father Kimel. Both time and eternity are conceptually much “thicker” and complex than a univocal, analytically inclined modernity is likely to countenance or even imagine. It’s not self-evident, in fact, that the permission of evil in history as we know it ever equates to God allowing a person to ultimately reject him. It might be that there are degrees of reality and at the highest level, encompassing both the alpha and omega, so that it is not strictly “after” historical time, but part of a nunc stans, “Billy always already” accepts God and it is from this ultimacy that God permits Billy to reject HIm on Monday and Tuesday, etc. The Eighth Day is not found on the calendar and the end of time is transcendent to our normal temporal calculations.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ben says:

      And yet that rejection could never be truly free, as Meditation Four demonstrates. So God would not be allowing a free choice at all. He would be cruelly abandoning Billy to slavery to illusion and pain.

      Like

    • Ben says:

      It’s not possible freely to reject God at all, on day 1 or day 10,000,000. That’s always been an incoherent idea. All one can truly reject is a misunderstanding.

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      • brian says:

        Alright, I understand the metaphysics of freedom and Hart’s argument. I wrote a long review on this blog where my agreement with the triumph of the Good over illusion is evident. I take it one can respond to an argument in a thread like this and surmise “reject” is intended in perhaps a more colloquial sense as something existentially and psychologically manifest in time without having ultimate metaphysical reality.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      There’s three problems with this, that I can see.
      Firstly, it assumes God is neither omnipotent not omniscient, in that he apparently created Billy without realising this scenario would arise, and is incapable of stopping the endless sequence now it has.
      Secondly, it assumes a “steady state” Billy, with Billy in the same situation in day 2 as he is in day 1, which he obviously isn’t. On day 2, it has to be both possible and just that Billy suffers for another day *given that he has suffered for one day already*, and so on. It is a completely different question as to whether it is just for Billy’s suffering to continue for another day after one or two days of suffering than whether it is just to continue it after he has already suffered for a million years.
      Thirdly, it assumes what it seeks to prove, that it’s absolutely OK and unremarkable that God wills or permits suffering. This has never been the Christian position. The Christian position has always been that suffering is willed or permitted by God for some purpose which justifies the suffering concerned. God will;ng or permitting Billy’s suffering for even one day, or one hour, or one second must have a justifiable end if it is to be good. If it ceases to serve that purpose, it ceases to be just. Billy’s suffering must, if God is just, come to an end when its purpose is served, and will cone to an end because God, being omnipotent, achieves all his purposes.
      The argument has more holes than a colander, I’m afraid.

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      • apoloniolatariii says:

        Good stuff, guys. Thanks.

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      • Nate says:

        I was going to make a similar point about “steady state” Billy but with a different conclusion. Billy doesn’t remain Billy when he rejects God. He begins to disintegrate because the rejection of God, the source of being, entails a movement toward non-being. So the integration toward infinity that @apoloniolatariii implies has a result of 0, not of Billy.

        One assumes, of course, that in Hart’s framework, if God is not willing that any should suffer eternal torment, neither is He willing that any who exist should become non-existent.

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          One objection universalism has to deal with (which is really what the Billy scenario is about) is as to what happens if someone never repents? The only answer it has is to deny this as a possibility: Hart rejects the possibility by pointing out that for it to happen, God, being omniscient, would have had to know this would happen and created Billy anyway. As you anticipate, Hart posits this as an answer to annihilationism as well, as that would be a failure of God to achieve whatever aim he had in making Billy in the first place.

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          • Ben says:

            Yes, but that’s not the actual whole of the answer. It is also logically impossible for there to be a wholly FREE rejection of God in the first place. God could not create such a being if he wanted to, because freedom is rationality and rationality is originally oriented to the Good, and the rational will cannot cease moving and intending. Also, the inherent finitude of evil cannot overcome the eternal reality of divine goodness and love in their unyielding assault on the soul. This is Gregory of Nyssa’s argument too.

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    • Grant says:

      To the many other good replies, I would agree and add it doesn’t affect or would address Hart’s point, because the argument would confuse secondary causation and actions with the primary cause to which all these other actions are both reducible to and enfolded in, and essentially slips in the view that God is a being alongside Billy, and not God but a god therefore, or the distinction between the infinite and eternal Creator and finite creatures and creation (and of our creaturely dimensions and experiences necessary for our being, space and time for example). It’s not really a matter of ‘adding another day’ since all days and situations and everything Billy is and faces, interacts with, decides, both it and his environment and contingent reality in which he lives and has his being it brought into being out of nothing by God, founded and sustained by Him, freely without constraint. This would include the endless days, and their situations, all is created by, brought into being, and enfolded God’s Creative act, including all secondary events, freedoms, and actions, of which He is transcendent of, completely more and infinitely more full and real than then the whole created reality.

      And in creating freely out of nothing, this includes as I said, Billy whole being, all he is linked to and united with throughout the endless days of his existence, his very form and ways of thinking and knowing. No matter his secondary freedom, given no matter what wide scope, if he is brought into being (his whole nature brought into being, all him in these endless days) to reject his own good and life and fulfillment, to destroy himself and suffer torment and torture forever, without means of being freed from such destruction, in that he is brought into being to forever reject it (given God brings this into existence from nothing, freely without constraint), then Billy is brought into existence to be a damned and destroyed and tormented person, he would be brought into being for this purpose, as if this is his realized created end, not a shadow within that bringing into being into which he is so created to be freed from such mistaken falling and damage (and so that fleeting shadow is a risk allowed for the greater freedom and joy and life to come, allowed only for that full purpose) then Billy is not just permitted to fall. At this Primary point, he is brought into being and created for being someone who is damned, who at secondary level might damn themselves but only because God at a primary level created and brought it into being to be so.

      And so again, in this example you cannot affirm all three points about God, and therefore make both Christianity incoherent and deny one or other key foundational dogmatic claims that are the heart of the faith.

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  2. Patrick Halferty says:

    Thank you. I am looking forward to your series of reflections.

    Like

  3. simon says:

    1 Corinthians 3–According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled[b] master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

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  4. George Domazetis says:

    I am trying to follow this reasoning, but I always come up against this: Christ was crucified and died without committing sin. Did God intend an innocent man to die just because? Since God knew from the beginning all things, how can we reconcile the death of a sinless man (no less) with Hart’s view of what he thinks is the goodness of God?

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    • Ben says:

      That’s not relevant to Hart’s argument. The issue is eschatology. There is a difference between willing the possibility of an evil that will finally be overcome in the redemption of all things and positively willing an unredeemed evil as part of the final state of reality. One allows the contingency of a temporary failure of the good. The other requires a permanent evil as part of the ultimate end of everything.

      Like

    • brian says:

      George, why do you rhetorically presume the “just because” as if the Christian tradition and the kerygma of the gospel gives us no hermeneutic help in answering your question? Christ’s own testimony is that his action reveals the Father so if one deems Christ innocent, so is the Father. Further, soteriological action is both Triune and human, for the God-Man reveals to us both divinity and humanity. The patristic trope that Christ is antidote to physical and spiritual death is germane. If one takes seriously the organic unicity of the human thing (Gregory of Nyssa is good on this), the concept of communicatio idiomatum implies that by taking upon himself the sins of the world, Christ is raising humanity to an eschatological divinization.

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      • George Domazetis says:

        I am responding to the argument that has as its basis for creation from nothing – in the beginning was the Word, and the goodness of God is revealed in Christ, but to human logic, this may appear incoherent, in that Christ creates all, to include His death. Instead of incoherence, I am inclined to accept the mystery, and the need to have faith that God knows what He is doing, while we humans may understand some, but not all.

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  5. George Domazetis says:

    I think Christ and his life and death is the crux of the ultimate end of everything – my feeling is that we may be confused on the eternal purifying fire that cleanses us from our evil, with the finality and end of all evil, which would not be everlasting torment of individuals.

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    • Ben says:

      That’s not very clear. Could you restate that?

      Like

      • George Domazetis says:

        I am responding to the argument that has as its basis for creation from nothing – in the beginning was the Word, and the goodness of God is revealed in Christ, but to human logic, this may appear incoherent, in that Christ creates all, to include His death. Instead of incoherence, I am inclined to accept the mystery, and the need to have faith that God knows what He is doing, while we humans may understand some, but not all.

        Like

  6. George Domazetis says:

    Fr Kimel, how do I give you a heads up? I now suspect part of the problem may stem from my attempt to shorten my name, although I cannot see why. Btw please clean my mess, thanks.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      George, I’m not sure how to clean up the conversation, as I’m unclear which comments your comments are replying to. Let’s not worry about it. Just remember to hit “reply” when responding to someone’s specific comments, but if you just want to leave a general comment in response to the article, then write in the comment box at the bottom of the page.

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  7. joel in ga says:

    Makes me think of Anselm in Cur Deus Homo (ch. IV)

    “From these things, we can easily see that God will either complete what he has begun with regard to human nature, or else he has made to no end so lofty a nature, capable of so great good. Now if it be understood that God has made nothing more valuable than rational existence capable of enjoying him; it is altogether foreign from his character to suppose that he will suffer that rational existence utterly to perish…Therefore is it necessary for him to perfect in human nature what he has begun.”

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  8. Harley Voogd says:

    Good summary. Looking forward to the next one.

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  9. David Morrison says:

    Universalism is condemned by Scripture. “Those who believe and are baptized shall be saved…those who do not believe shall be damned.” Christ Himself said those who find the narrow Way will be few. Do you want to be saved and avoid ETERNAL damnation? Believe, be baptized, live in repentance, live in/for Christ. End of story. (I’m Roman Catholic)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      End of story–that pretty much closes the discussion. 😉

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      • Nate says:

        I don’t understand how this is anything other than a restating of the question. Is “damned” implicitly understood to be “eternally damned”? Is “saved” a checkbox that signifies “eternally saved”?

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      “Those who believe and are baptized shall be saved…those who do not believe shall be damned.”
      I recognise the first half of this, but not the second: where is this a quote from?

      Like

  10. Greg Pavlik says:

    One final question though: what is the circle icon at the top of the post? I keep finding myself coming back to look at it over and over.

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  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Given David’s announcement that he will be formally responding to the Pakaluk article, I will be closing the comments thread both here and there or there and here.

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Comments are closed.